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Volume 68, Issue 137, Monday, April 21, 2003


Nocturnal animals beware

Tom Carpenter
Opinion Columnist

It appears that country bumpkins aren't the only creatures dazzled and seduced by the bright lights of the Big City. 

New research indicates that the brilliantly shining metropolitan radiance that beckons a warm welcome to the weary traveler also take a toll on bird populations unable to avoid the mesmerizing invitation of the lights. 

More than 450 bird species that migrate across North America during the night risk collisions with towers and their flashing night-lights, an April 17th National Geographic article reported.

The avian carnage reaches apocalyptic proportions if youire one of the 10,000 birds that crashed into the floodlit smokestacks at the Hydrox Generating Plant outside Kingston, Ontario in 1981 or one of the 50,000 birds (maybe Dodos) that followed the bright lights at Warner Robins Air Force Base, Ga., and flew straight into the ground. 

Prometheus must be turning over in the Elysian Fields right now. The fiery illumination he gave man joins air and water pollution, the blast of rifles and shotguns, and urban development and deforestation as a threat to bird populations. 

Birds active at night (except jailbirds) navigate by the stars and moon during their biannual migrations, and artificial lighting wreaks havoc with their innate ability to plot a course between their spring birthing grounds and winter sanctuaries. 

Michael Mesure, the executive director of Fatal Light Awareness Program, told National Geographic that when birds fly though a brightly lit area, "they become disoriented and often slam into brightly lit broadcast towers or buildings, often circling the edifices until they drop from exhaustion."

Not much is known about the effects of lights on wildlife, but a number of studies have shown, for instance, that pumas avoid bright areas when they travel at night, causing them to miss critical landmarks. 

Incandescent lights have been responsible for the deaths of billions of insects each year since the first bug flew into one and began mindlessly circling the light, but did you know that incandescent lights mimic the light spectrum fireflies create to mate? 

This disturbs the insect's ability to reproduce; surely a discomfiting circumstance for amorous fireflies.

Wildlife species evolved with biological rhythms that have dramatic effects on their instincts, Travis Longcore, a bio-geographer with the Urban Wildlands Group in Los Angeles said.

Some animals only hunt in the dark, and the soft glow of urban development causes these animals to shorten their hunting periods and surrender large areas of their hunting grounds, leading to decreased populations.

Bright lights also affect the reproduction of sea turtles. Coastal counties in Florida have passed ordinances that make residents turn off their beachfront lights during turtle nesting season. The lights confuse the hatchlings, which need dark nights to orient themselves after birth to make their way to the sea. The bright city lights along the Florida coast bewilder the hatchlings, and instead heading out to sea, the turtles wander the shore until daybreak arrives along with a host of predators that feast on the disoriented hatchlings.

Although all 986 species of bats, 20 percent of primates, 80 percent of marsupials, and most rodents and smaller carnivores are nocturnal, very few studies have been done to investigate the effect of light pollution on mammals, the National Geographic reported. 

The good news, however, is that your average Joe Blow can do something about light pollution, unlike most forms of contamination. 

The International Dark-Sky Association in Tucson, Arizona estimates that one-third of all lighting in the United States is wasted. The price for our terror of the dark and advertising gluttony (think Las Vegas) amounts to about 30 million barrels of oil and more than 8.2 million tons of coal a year, at a cost of about $2 billion annually.

You want to help migrating birds and amorous fireflies? 

Just turn off the lights.

Carpenter, a college of education student, can be reached via


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